He was an unexpected child. Many years younger than his five elder siblings, Gábor Daróczi grew up in Bedő, a village near the Romanian border, surrounded by different languages and blue-green countryside. His mother, known by everyone as a Büszke, the Proud, did not only pass on genetic imprints to her children. She also passed on her steely backbone – and belief in education. Unlike many Roma youngsters, her children went to school, left the village, traveled the world.
Gábor, tall and soft-spoken, wears his Roma identity as some might wear a beautiful coat: It is rich and significant, but it is not one’s essence. We talk in the book-lined conference room of Romaversitas, the organization he directs. Its aim is to assist Roma university students in Hungary through scholarships, mentorship and professional development.
As we drink tea, Gábor tells me his story: how he moved to a slightly larger village at the age of three, then to Budapest as a ten year-old. He never had any Roma teachers or role-models. His stance on the subject of Roma teachers is clear:
“I call them the ‘hero of the day,’ or everyday hero…but if this is an excuse to put children into a segregated class, or in a segregated school, then he or she cannot [do] as much good. So it’s very important to meet someone who is one of you, but in a mainstream situation.”
Gábor is a self-described “son of luck”: Somehow, a golden thread was always tugging him along, rescuing him from dead-end jobs and pushing him toward a vocation of service.
“I wasn’t a very good student. I was working all the time, at a small shop selling cigarettes and chocolate bars, [or] driving a car and bringing stuff from here to there. Almost everything. Later on, my brother decided instead of me that I should go to college. He just grabbed me and took me there and put in front of me the papers to fill out. And I succeeded, so I had to go!”
In university, he studied cultural management:
“We learned how to organize, we learned how to get in touch with people, we learned how to motivate people. Surprisingly I am doing what I learned at that time, which is not really common.”
One thing Gábor stresses is pragmatism – with heart. Students must feel that their studies have a direct impact on the lives and advancement of others. Academic theories are not sufficient for real-world engagement. Relating to people; reading body language and emotional cues; encouraging others; and learning how to express oneself with poise – these are the skills and wisdoms that schools don’t necessarily teach, but that are vital to a 21st century career.
Gábor’s own career history has been divided between non-profits and policy. Jobs at the Soros Foundation and in the Hungarian Government gave him deep insights into the situation of Roma and other disadvantaged people – and why current frameworks aren’t working.
While working for the Government’s Health Development Research Institute, for example, he investigated why many Roma children are classified as “mentally disabled.” The findings, however, were later shelved, mainly due to their unsavory nature: There were abnormal relations between the committees deciding the children’s IQ and the schools who received these pupils. If a school had a certain number of empty places, the committees managed to find exactly that number of “mentally disabled” students to fill those seats.
In addition to such disturbing findings, Gábor encountered a disconnect between resources and efficacy during his time in the government. While he was in charge of many people and a lot of cash, the fact remained: He did not feel like he was helping the community in a real or meaningful way.
“After a year [at the National Development Agency, in charge of disadvantaged people], I realized that the system is working [in a way] that whatever I said didn’t matter…Whatever I said didn’t make any difference.”
Searching for greater effectiveness, in 2008 Gábor joined Romaversitas, a small organization of only three colleagues:
“I came here because here I work with real people, real students…the most important thing you need to give them is your personality…Community building and personal development, including role models, is basic. Money is important, but not enough.”
In March, I attended an Open University weekend that Romaversitas holds several times a year for its students and alumni. The theme of the weekend was “Employment and Professional Development.” Through seminars and creative activities like drama workshops, the students gained skills including communication, confidence, and self-knowledge. There was also a special seminar for high school students, in which Gábor facilitated a dialogue on Roma identity, education, and the credentials you need to achieve your goals. He challenged the students to think critically about their futures and their society.
Of course, no organization is free from critics, especially in the insular world of Roma activism. Moreover, with rising nationalism, economic decline, and the future of Roma people at stake across Europe, organizations like Romaversitas must walk a difficult line between their core mission and mere survival. But in Hungary’s current political climate, which fosters a single, nationalist narrative, critical thinking is a skill that Gábor feels is increasingly important – and increasingly endangered:
“My biggest fear is that in school, children learn how to obey. But they don’t learn how to stand up for their own rights. This is the biggest problem. And those who know how to stand up for their rights are going to leave the country. Many of them have already left, including many of our students. Take a look at the elections [of 6 April 2014]. Many people, 40% didn’t vote, which means they don’t want to express their opinion. Or they don’t care.”
To remedy this level of apathy and disengagement, Gábor emphasizes the importance, not only of critical thinking, but of taking a stand and giving service:
“First of all, you cannot push people to do volunteer work. Because if you push them it’s not volunteering. You have to create a situation where they feel from inside that there is something that they must do in favour of others. It’s a duty. It’s coming from inside. And this is what we’re missing.”
From his words and actions, it is clear that this inner duty is what drives Gábor to provide mentorship and opportunities to the next generations of Roma students.
(photo credits (c) Gabor Daroczi and AE Lefton)